Massive cruise ships will return to Maine ports this summer after a two-year hiatus, but it’s unclear whether communities are ready to welcome them back.

Maine’s tourism industry had a near-record-breaking year in 2021 without the cruise market, which critics say offers a negligible economic benefit to the state. Some residents of Bar Harbor, the state’s biggest cruise port, are fed up with the crowding and congestion and want to rein in the industry.

Most big cruise ships visit Maine in the fall “shoulder” season to coincide with the changing leaves and take advantage of fewer crowds. Even without them, the state was packed with tourists last year through mid-October and even later, said Khaled Habash, owner of The Scenic Route Maine Tours in Portland.

“You could argue, with the ships, it might be too much,” Habash said. “They clog up the restaurants, the shops, the sidewalks – but it is a great way to keep Portland on the map.”

Cruises stopped early in 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic reached a global scale and cases were increasingly detected on ships. A U.S. no-sail order was in effect until last summer, when smaller ships with a few hundred passengers started visiting Maine again.

Big ships carrying thousands of passengers and crew were sidelined until this year because a Canadian travel ban and federal regulations prevented them from sailing to U.S. waters, too.


This year, with no travel restrictions and only voluntary COVID-19 regulations for cruises, the industry is back in full swing and bearing down on Maine.

The cruise ships Grandeur of the Seas, left, and Victory 1 dock at Ocean Gateway in Portland in May 2018. Ariana van den Akker/Staff Photographer


About 95 ships are destined for Portland in 2022, nearly the same as in 2019. Roughly 175 ships have scheduled stops in Bar Harbor, more than during the previous full sailing year. At maximum capacity, that could mean about 140,000 passengers destined for Portland and 290,000 for Bar Harbor, said CruiseMaine Director Sarah Flink.

“It is hard to have the crystal ball to say, but this year we are predicting a little-lower-than-normal occupancy,” Flink said.

While 2021 was a banner year for tourism in Maine, that may not be the case in the future, she said. Travelers were shut out of international destinations and desperate to visit somewhere they could drive, contributing to the state’s strong summer-and-fall tourism season.

The same circumstances might not line up again, and cruise ship tourists will contribute to the overall economy, Flink said. Visiting on a cruise may also lead passengers to consider a future trip to Maine on their own, she added.


Cruise passengers in Maine spent about $70 each at every port they visited, according to a 2019 study by the Maine Office of Tourism. Last year, overnight travelers staying at paid accommodations spent about $200 a day, while day-trippers spent about $87 based on a traveling group of 2.7 people, according to the tourism office’s research.

“There were plenty of business and marine service providers that desperately missed this sector of tourism,” Flink said.

Municipal governments also have lost money during the pandemic from the lack of ship fees. Portland earned almost $1.2 million in cruise ship passenger “head taxes” in 2019 alone. Cruise lines are scheduled to call on nine Maine ports this year, including Boothbay Harbor, Bath, Rockland, Eastport and Castine. For the first time in 11 years, Bangor will be on the list, too, after the city council last week approved a 20-year docking lease for American Cruise Lines, Mainebiz reported.

“I think the focus for us going forward, everywhere in Maine, is we want to do this well,” Flink said. “We want to welcome people who are so excited to come and share our place, and we want to make sure it is done well and sustainably.”

The cruise ship Norwegian Dawn is shown moored in Portland Harbor in 2019. Most cruise ship passengers like Maine ports and spend about $70 each while on a typical four-hour visit. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


Old Port Card Works on Portland’s Commercial Street was a regular destination for cruise passengers. Crowds would blow through owner Tom Largay’s gift shop and nearby candy store, buying up anything “Maine” – chocolate-covered blueberries, candy lobsters, mugs and postcards.


“For me, it is super nice to have, but it is not critical,” Largay said about cruise ship visits.

Still, Largay said that in his experience, cruises produce repeat visitors.

“I’ve definitely had people make a point to tell me, ‘I was on a cruise ship two years ago, we loved what little we got to see and wanted to come back,’ ” he said.

When cruises were suspended in 2020, Habash mothballed his Portland-area tour company, The Scenic Route.

“I kind of catered my tour business to exclusively cater to cruise ship passengers,” he said. “My vehicles have literally been sitting in a garage for two years.”

His other businesses, The Blue Lobster apparel and souvenir shop and Portland Duck Tours, stayed open and achieved record sales. Habash said he’s still uncertain about the upcoming season and won’t restart tours until at least mid-August, when the big ships start to arrive.


Then, he’ll be faced with a new challenge: hiring enough workers to run the six tour vehicles.

“I need to find employees, and I haven’t found them for three years,” Habash said.

Cruise ships including the Seven Seas Navigator, right, are shown docked in Portland Harbor in 2019. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


Town councilors in Bar Harbor recently considered steep restrictions on the number of cruise passengers to the state’s most popular port. New regulations responded to residents’ growing dissatisfaction with crowding and congestion brought on by cruise passengers.

In a 2021 survey of more than 1,300 residents, over half said that cruise ship tourism was more negative than positive, degrading the quality of life in Bar Harbor and detracting from the overall image and visitor appeal of the town. Fewer than a quarter of survey respondents said the economic impact of cruise ships was important to themselves, their friends, family, neighbors, businesses or employers.

The town intends to negotiate with the cruise companies to reduce the number of ships coming this year instead of enacting new regulations, said Town Council Chairman Jeff Dobbs. Partly, the town was worried that hurried regulations could open it up to lawsuits from deep-pocketed cruise lines.

Still, the town’s budget for cruise revenue is set at 70 percent of the amount earned in 2019, indicating how many fewer ships and passengers the town would like to see, he said.

“Cruise ships have been coming here for 44 years,” Dobbs said. “The reality of it is, if we are going to do this and not get into a huge court battle, compromise is going to have to take place.”

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